Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review - Avengers: Age of Ultron

This review contains spoilers.

In 2005, Joss Whedon gave an interview for Wizard Magazine in which he discussed his dislike of crossover events and his desire to ignore them when structuring his story arc for Astonishing X-Men volume 3—a title that he wrote for Marvel from 2005 to 2008 (1). A year later, in another feature article for Wizard, Whedon reiterated his personal dislike of crossovers and expressed frustration with being unable to work on characters that hadn’t already been defined by the efforts of other creators (2). I mention these decade-old articles because I think they speak to the fundamental problem with Whedon’s recent take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe—his inability to do his best work in the collaborative crossover environment. The majority of the film’s flaws—from the seemingly retconned characterizations to the Deus ex Machina that saved the day in the final fifteen minutes—can be traced to this core issue: that Whedon, uncomfortable with the developments that other writers/directors in the Phase Two cohort had implemented, chose to ignore the majority of those developments in favor of making a film that was a direct sequel to The Avengers, rather than a sequel to the Phase Two films as a whole.

In terms of its basic premise, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film that could have grown out of the elements from previous films in the series. However, the film was primarily characterized by a disregard for the aspects of the franchise that Joss Whedon appears to have disliked (3). As a result, Age of Ultron did not take Tony Stark’s character development in Iron Man 3 into account. It did not in any way acknowledge the conspiracy at the heart of Thor: The Dark World. It did not incorporate the recent character development of Steve Rogers or Natasha Romanoff into its portrayal of those characters. And it made a mockery of the principle plotline of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been largely dismantled and that therefore it was well-nigh impossible for Nick Fury to ride in on a massive helicarrier (that just happened to be loaded up with everything the heroes needed to evacuate a flying city that no one knew was going to be a flying city) and save the day.

These are not insurmountable flaws, of course, and character/event retconning has been the bread-and-butter of comic book franchises since their inception, but because the script did not provide any transitions between the Phase Two films and Age of Ultron, Whedon’s retcons are incredibly difficult to swallow. We never see any acknowledgement of the lessons Tony Stark took away from his battle with Aldrich Killian—that building an army of drones was not an appropriate way to maintain control over his (or anyone’s) life; any acknowledgement of the grief and guilt that Steve Rogers felt (and must have continued to feel) upon learning that he had failed to save his best friend from a fate worse than death; any acknowledgement of the immense uncertainty that Natasha must have struggled with in the aftermath of creating a world that knew both her name and her incredibly conflicted past. Even the barest of dialogue exchanges would have helped the audience to transition from these status quos to the new foundation being laid by Age of Ultron—and yet such exchanges were almost entirely absent (4). And the fact that they are absent is a major failing of the film.

These failings are, I think, attributable to the fact that Joss Whedon is at his best when he’s able to work on his own, largely free of the creative constraints that crossovers and multiple storylines present. That freedom is what made The Avengers such a good movie. Whedon was, for the most part, working on a blank canvas with a fresh palette, and with that latitude he made something great. In the post-Phase Two world, however, as the storylines got more and more out of Whedon’s control, the situation became one in which he could not do his best work. It’s unclear why no one stepped in to help Whedon overcome this struggle, or perhaps why he refused to accept their help (5), but in the end this fundamental conflict between what the MCU needed and what Whedon wanted made for an extremely muddled movie.

Age of Ultron was fun while it lasted but impossible to think about too deeply once it was over because very little about it made a lot of sense. The motivations of our heroes were largely at odds with how the characters had previously been developed, and the attempt to write them with the same basic motivations as those that they had in The Avengers complicated Whedon’s ability to handle other aspects of the film’s narrative. The mechanism by which Ultron was created and the basis for his behavior was confusing; the motivations of the twins were never adequately explained; the narrative arc of what happened to JARVIS and how he “became” the Vision was extremely incoherent; and Nick Fury showing up to pull off a Hail Mary during the film’s climax strained credulity. It’s not that the film was bad, exactly—it holds up as well as most action films of this nature do—but the high bar set by such films as Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy makes it difficult to settle for something that is just okay.

In many ways, Avengers: Age of Ultron was a film struggling to live up to (perhaps impossibly) high standards and find an emotional arc that really mattered (6), and it missed the mark largely on the basis of the fact that Joss Whedon—for whatever reason—just couldn’t seem to bring himself to interweave the threads of the larger crossover event into his movie. Instead of taking the rich material that he had been given in the form of the preceding Phase Two films, he stuck with the dynamics that he had established in The Avengers. The result was a film that was (in terms of its narrative beats) almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, decidedly retrograde, and a hot mess with a fundamental lack of stakes.

And that’s a great shame for everyone.

1) “Joss Whedon’s X-Men,” Wizard: The Comics Magaine, no. 165 (July 2005). During the course of Whedon’s run, Astonishing X-Men operated without reference to such events as “House of M,” “Decimation,” and “Messiah Complex,” amongst others, and his practice of writing independently of major Marvel crossovers set the standard for the title when it passed into the hands of other creators like Warren Ellis, Greg Pak, and Marjorie Liu.
2) “The ABCs of Joss Whedon,” Wizard: The Comics Magazine, no. 180 (October 2006). This article can be read at The Ink & Code.
3) According to a BuzzFeed piece, Whedon’s post-Avengers contract with Marvel engaged him to weigh in on the creative direction of the Phase Two films—a process he enjoyed when other production teams took his advice and was frustrated with when they “missed the point entirely.” “Joss Whedon’s Astonishing, Spine-Tingling, Soul-Crushing Marvel Adventure,” BuzzFeed News (April 20, 2015).
4) Clint Barton’s characterization, while not set up in any way in the previous MCU films (and at serious odds with the 616 characterization of Clint that is so beloved), is apparently drawn from the 1610 Ultimates universe, and I’m not entirely certain what I think of it. On the one hand, I think it opens up some interesting ways to read the dynamics of the character in The Avengers—as described in this post by tumblr user Tea Berry-Blue—on the other hand, I feel that the inclusion of the traditional wife and kids family unit did very little for the narrative of Age of Ultron other than to function as a deliberate attempt to mislead the audience into thinking that it would be Clint Barton who died rather than Pietro Maximoff and to provide more weight to the implication expressed in the Natasha-Bruce romance subplot that women who cannot bear children are somehow flawed.
5) A recent article in The Playlist reveals that many of (what I consider to be) the film’s most cumbersome and tedious segments—like the plethora of dream sequences and the extended stay at Clint’s farm—were things that Marvel wanted excised from the film’s final cut and that Whedon was determined to keep in. “Joss Whedon Shot An Alternate ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Ending Where [Redacted] Doesn’t Die & Much More,” The Playlist (May 4, 2015).
6) The fact that Joss Whedon elected to try and establish an emotional arc by including a major character death was, I think, a major missed opportunity. The Avengers found its emotional arc not in the death of Agent Coulson but in the moment when Tony Stark realized that he was the sort of man who would lie down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over him—a character development that is, ironically, missing from this film. Age of Ultron was rife with the potential for a similar kind of arc, and it’s too bad that Whedon couldn’t quite find it—or couldn’t quite trust that it would be there without a major character death. (For my money, Hawkeye’s secret family life could have been put to incredibly good use in this respect. Imagine if the film’s narrative had combined the knowledge of everything Clint Barton had to lose, along with his history of mentoring Natasha Romanoff, his obvious willingness to step into that role with the twins, and an immediate feel-good return on that investment with Pietro saving Clint's life without dying himself and then going on to become Clint’s most trusted lieutenant/sidekick/etc. Now that’s an emotional arc that I could get behind.)